Called to Wrestle

I’m a fighter. As a kid, my rebel spirit frequently collided with the older, wiser people in my life. Heated arguments with my big brother, disciplinary sessions at school, corrective lectures at home—all repeated the same clear message: I needed to learn to submit. My insubordinate attitude certainly warranted extra doses of correction, but with such a strong emphasis on submission and obedience, I began to assume that godliness meant being mild and compliant, relating to God and others in submissive surrender. But the story of Israel flies in the face of that assumption.

The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” …
After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.

Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. … Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing.”
Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”
“The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied.
Genesis 25:22, 26; 27:19-20

Jacob had always been a fighter. His pre-natal wrestling matches with his twin brother were a cause for great alarm (and discomfort) for their mother. He came into the world grabbing onto Esau’s heel, stubbornly refusing to let go or be left behind. Throughout childhood Jacob tussled with his brother for first place in the family, conning him of his birthright and cheating him of his blessing. For years he grappled with his cunning uncle Laban over ladies and livestock, eventually emerging the victor with four wives, twelve sons, and a massive horde of wealth.

The spunky, tenacious spirit that God instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him.

But the one superior with whom Jacob had never wrestled was God. Rather, he had been content to maintain a reverent but distant relationship with the One whom he referred to as his father’s God. Jacob had spoken with Him at critical times in his life, but these encounters had usually been initiated by God. For the most part, Jacob’s own cunning and strength had seemed sufficient to overcome the challenges he faced. He appreciated God’s assistance along the way, but so far he had avoided entering into the kind of intense, life-defining relationship with God that his grandfather Abraham had modeled.

Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.” He spent the night there …
Genesis 32:9-11, 13

God was not content to leave it there. He had created Jacob with his fighting spirit, and He wanted Jacob to engage Him full-on. The night came when Jacob felt most vulnerable and helpless. His brother Esau was coming with a band of 400 men, and Jacob, with his many wives, children, and livestock, was a sitting duck. This was no time to get into a fight, and Jacob knew it. He was scared; his strong will was subdued. In desperation, Jacob initiated an encounter with God. This time he had nothing with which to leverage God’s favor; all he could do was humble himself before God and beg for help. If God had wanted Jacob to relate to Him as a mild, compliant vassal, then this would have been the posture in which He met him. But it wasn’t.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Genesis 32:24-26

Dark night. Mysterious man. Hand-to-hand combat. Strange. For once, Jacob had not picked this fight, but he certainly had no intent of losing it. He knew this was no ordinary opponent; he had seen the angels camping nearby. So he did what came naturally: grab on and refuse to let go. Maybe he could manipulate this man into blessing him. God knew he needed it! Day began to break, and the man seemed to grow desperate. Wrenched hip. Staggering pain! But Jacob still refused to back off. The man pleaded for release. Finally, Jacob had him where he wanted him. Or was it the other way around?

The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Genesis 32:27-31

Finally. Jacob was wrestling with God, and God was delighted. He had wanted Jacob to engage Him, to come directly to Him for blessing rather than to sneak it in his brother’s name. But as a result of the new relationship they had formed this night, God had a new name for Jacob: Israel, “he struggles with God.” This name defined the kind of relationship that God was calling Jacob into. It would define the rest of Jacob’s life and the nation that God would raise up after him.

God loves fighters. Yes, He demands our whole-hearted respect and life-long submission, but He did not create us to grovel like slaves. The spunky, tenacious spirit that He instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him. For reasons beyond my understanding, He delights in our gutsy engagement. Like our predecessor Israel, we are called to wrestle with God.

After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.
(which means ‘God, the God of Israel’)
Genesis 33:18, 20

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What Abuse Is Not

Abuse is a topic I have too long avoided writing about. But something as pernicious and pervasive as abuse cries out for a righteous response.

God is love. He embodies everything that abuse is not.

Domestic abuse. Child abuse. Sexual abuse. Spiritual abuse. Abusive language. Abusive relationships. We use the word abuse in so many different ways that what it really means becomes obscured. By what standard do we judge that something or someone is being mis-used?

To understand what abuse is, I want to go back to a clear picture of what it is not.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. … God made two great lights–the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. … And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”… God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”
Genesis 1:2, 16, 20, 22

Not aloof. Not destructive. Not demeaning. In the beginning, God came personally near to the world. His Spirit hovered over the place where He would create beauty out of chaos, meaning out of darkness, life out of emptiness, love out of void. He took great delight in calling forth the moon and the stars, the sea creatures and the sky creatures, the plants and the animals, instilling them each with the dignity of a role and a purpose. To the lights in the sky He delegated the powerful, illustrious role of ruling over time and seasons. To the plants and various living creatures He entrusted the task of finishing the work He had started, empowering them to reproduce and fill the earth with more of themselves.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”… God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Genesis 1:27-28, 31

Not restrictive. Not degrading. Not isolating. He raised a man up out of the dust, carefully crafting him to look, think, feel, and function like Himself. He did not attempt to keep the man alone to Himself, but instead designed the loveliest of companions to fulfill his social needs. Together He exalted them to His own position as rulers over the earth, endowing them with the right to govern His abundant resources. Reveling in their radiance, delighting in their goodness, God equipped them, blessed them, and set them free to carry on His creative work in the world.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart. … These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
… who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. … As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 104:13-15, 27-28; 103:2-4, 13-14

Not threatened. Not stingy. Not hard-hearted. Even after their rejection of His authority and insistence on their own autonomy, God did not retaliate with whole-scale physical deprivation or emotional abandonment. He continues to direct the sun and send the rain to nurture life on the earth, to open His hand and feed its many creatures. Like a loving Father, He facilitates the accomplishments of His people and satisfies their desires with good things. And when they come back to Him broken and needy, He does not lord it over them with a smug, “I told you so” or make them grovel with a “Do you know how much you wronged me?” He throws open His arms to welcome them, compassionately healing their wounds and joyfully celebrating their restored relationship.

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:25-27

Not distancing. Not penalizing. Not cruel. In response to shortcomings in His bride, Jesus chose self-sacrifice instead of her punishment, violence against His own body rather than against hers. He lovingly labors for her, tending her like a cherished garden which needs constant weeding and faithful feeding. He washes away her impurities and enhances her beauty so that He can show her off for all in heaven and on earth to admire. He delights in her glory.

God is love. He embodies everything that abuse is not. In the next several posts, I intend to examine abuse within human relationships from several angles. But for now, I want to bask in the beauty of how God relates to us. This relationship is not only our reference point for all others, it is the one right relationship that heals us from the wrongs of abusive ones.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Beyond Disillusionment

Patty Toland, a friend and co-worker, recently sent me her story of wrestling with God through devastated dreams and deep disillusionment. The complete article was originally published under the title ‘The traps to destroy’ in an anthology entitled “Beyond the Edge.”

1981 was the year that God clearly called me into missions. So I terminated my classes at a secular university and began studying Bible and Mission. I was sure God was leading me to work in Africa among a tribe that had no church and worshipped evil spirits. Twelve years later my dreams became real as I stepped off the plane into hot, humid, lush, green West Africa. My anticipation and joy were almost insuppressible. Little did I know that seven months later I’d fly out of the country for medical treatment and be told I probably could never return again due to poor health.

Suddenly the whole world for which I was living swirled around and around, leaving me in questioning darkness. “God, where are you? Why can’t You overcome it? Why did You lead so clearly, then seemingly pull the carpet out from under my feet? How can I go on when all my hopes and dreams have been dashed?

Then the journey through my internal battles began, starting in darkness and confusion, then gradually being trapped by unbelief, anger and bitterness. I began to think God had brought me all the way to Africa just to dump me there. I neither felt, saw, nor sensed His presence. I searched for Him, longing for a word, a verse, or some small feeling of assurance, yet heard nothing. I did have a kitten and a co-worker who comforted me, but not Him. He remained silent. I was incensed at His apparent inability to be a true Father as the Bible portrayed. Not until one year later did I slowly begin to recognize that He had manifested His presence to me through my co-worker and even the kitten. He was physically with me through them! I wanted Him in a supernatural way and missed Him in the ordinary and natural.

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
“He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.”
Psalm 50:14-15, 23

At one point while lying in a hospital room, I read the Word out of sheer boredom and loneliness. It said to offer up a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God and that He would be glorified. Feeling my bitterness of spirit rise up and giving in to what I knew wasn’t the Truth, I chose to declare audibly to God, “I have nothing to be thankful for.” I waited for an impending lightening to strike me dead (which I would’ve welcomed as being the most merciful thing He could’ve done) and instead gently heard, “That’s why it’s a sacrifice.” It had never occurred to me that the cost to whisper thanks in my bitterness and anger was worth more to Him than years of thanks during the easy times.

The cost to whisper thanks in my bitterness and anger was worth more to Him than years of thanks during the easy times.

As time went on and improvement in my health was not apparent, all that I believed about God and the Bible were shaken to the core. I realized my faith was shallower than the depth of my circumstances. Capitalizing on that was the Enemy, seeking of course to finish off the last morsel! I knew it was a battle for my mind.

“But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.
Job 23:8-10

I knew the only way to give God a fair chance was to at least read the Word again from the beginning to end, allowing it to seep into the sparse cracks in my thinking that were still slightly open to Him. To read the whole Bible from a bitter, angry state of mind is quite a challenge as there are no givens. My theology was revamped as I saw how much the Bible spoke of suffering and testing rather than how much He wants to bless us and make us happy. Even Job looked all over and couldn’t find Him, but was still convinced that God knew where he was and that when God was done testing him, he would come forth as gold. I wasn’t that convinced, but was intrigued that even Job couldn’t sense God’s presence.

The entire health battle lasted 9 years and I realize that the tool of struggling physically has brought stripping … There is a deeper spiritual well from which to drink that brings true abundant life in Him. The drops I’ve tasted are sweet and I wouldn’t trade them. I wasn’t able to say that during the deepest part of the trial, but as He healed my spirit and I looked for His will above mine, a whole new freedom was released. … As a result, it has brought me into a whole new life – a deeper one in God and His fullness that I otherwise would not have known.

A Better Dream

“When I try to think about the future, all I can see is an enormous black curtain blocking out everything else.” I could see no way around it. I knew what I was saying did not fit with the biblical hope that I professed, but that dark cloud of despair had settled so thickly over my soul that I could see little else. I didn’t want to be overcome by depression, but it was so much bigger than me, beyond what my simply “choosing joy” could dispel. Where could I go for help? Who could free me from this invisible prison?

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
Psalm 42:9-10

The answer was obvious. Every Sunday school child knows the songs about God being able to do anything. But He wasn’t doing it now. He was not delivering me from my troubles, He was not wiping away my tears, He was not lifting me out of my despair. Not yet, at least. Submerged under a shroud of darkness, I waited. But for what?

My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
Psalm 42:3-4

The longer I pondered that question, the more I realized that I was waiting for Him. One by one, all my other hopes and dreams had faded and died. The memory of them brought a painful chuckle. Had I really once been so bold and carefree as to pursue such idyllic aspirations? I had taken them for granted at the time, but experience taught me that life doesn’t usually work out the way we imagine it will. As the pathetic Fantine in Les Miserables so poignantly sings, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

The death of our dreams gives rise to the life of our worship.

But the longer I waited in the dark, the more a new dream emerged. Sure I still wanted to be a cheery, engaged mother to my children, a loving, encouraging wife to my husband, a useful, effective servant for the kingdom of God. Those were good goals that were right to pursue, but they were no longer the center of my vision. Losing the ability to fulfill them had whetted my appetite for God.

Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
Psalm 43:3-4

Stripped of all the other dreams in which I had formerly found significance and delight, I wanted nothing more than to be in God’s presence. I woke each morning desperate to escape into His heavenly throne room and to lose myself in all-consuming worship. I walked through each day clinging to Him with every step. And I fell asleep each night savoring the sweet comfort of being cradled in His arms.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Psalm 43:5

This was a dream that nothing in this life could deprive me of. It penetrated the dark barriers that hemmed me in and gave me a palpable hope to cling to. Even if I still could not envision the future, even if the thought of what lay ahead overwhelmed and intimidated me, beyond all that I could anticipate the sweetest of prospects: eternity in God’s presence. It was only a matter of time until my hope would be fulfilled, a matter of when, not if. And in the meantime, as I walked the up-and-down path of this life, there was no reason I couldn’t enjoy His presence along the way. Worship became my highest joy. I discovered that I was participating already in what would be perfect then.

Finding the Line

Having ridden the swinging pendulum from a polite but distant relationship with God to one that is more familiar and unreserved, it is easy to forget that God has boundaries. There are lines that He maintains around His glory that even we are not allowed past.

David discovered one of those lines by crossing it. He had come a long way in his relationship with God, too. From starry-eyed shepherd boy singing beautiful poetry, to traumatized warrior begging for relief, to jubilant king exalting his Benefactor, David had learned to walk intimately with God through the ups and downs of life. He had become confident in God’s unfailing love and bold in approaching His throne in raw, uninhibited prayer. Laments, complaints, requests, questions, thanks, praise: the full range of human emotion and relational interaction flowed freely between David and his God.

So David assembled all the Israelites, … to bring up from there the ark of God the LORD, who is enthroned between the cherubim–the ark that is called by the Name. They moved the ark of God from Abinadab’s house on a new cart, with Uzzah and Ahio guiding it. David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals and trumpets.
I Chronicles 13:5-8

The climactic moment of their relationship came when David finally became king over all Israel and established his throne in Jerusalem. The crowning touch was to be united with the ark of the covenant, the footstool of God’s throne and the actual place where His glory dwelt. David called all of the people together to participate in this momentous occasion. More glorious than a royal wedding, this procession was bringing God home to live in their midst.

When they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. So he died there before God.
1 Chronicles 13:9-10

Joyful singing. Jubilant music. Exuberant dancing. Burning anger? Devastating blow! The procession ground to a halt. David was in shock. One of his men lay dead next to the ark, struck down by God. David was angry. The man had merely been trying to steady the ark on the jolting cart! Did God really have to be so extreme about protecting His glory?

Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah… David was afraid of God that day and asked, “How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?” He did not take the ark to be with him in the City of David.
1 Chronicles 13:11-13

The day was ruined. David wasn’t so sure he even wanted God so close by, after all. What had happened to the God who was always on his side, always on hand to listen to his prayers and to help him in his struggles? Why hadn’t He cooperated with David’s plan and made their big day a success? Disillusioned, angry, and scared, David left the ark behind and returned home alone.

Our God is both tender friend and consuming fire.

It would take three months of reflection by David and re-affirmation by God to overcome the polite distance between them. David had to come to grips with a God who welcomed him into a warm, loving relationship but who still maintained distinct boundaries around His holiness. He had grown so comfortable in his relationship with God that he had forgotten to take God seriously. God had given specific instructions about how He wanted His ark to be transported, and He would not tolerate even the most intimate of His friends ignoring them.

“It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the LORD our God broke out in anger against us. We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way.” … So the priests and Levites consecrated themselves in order to bring up the ark of the LORD, the God of Israel. And the Levites carried the ark of God with the poles on their shoulders, as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the LORD.
1 Chronicles 15:13-15

Once David cooled down and realized where he had gone wrong, he had a decision to make. Was sharing a close relationship with God worth the risk? As he had witnessed, close proximity to God could bring extraordinary blessing or phenomenal disaster. Sobered but undeterred, David once again led the crowd in approaching God’s holy presence, but this time according to God’s terms.

Now David was clothed in a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and as were the singers, and Kenaniah, who was in charge of the singing of the choirs. David also wore a linen ephod. So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouts, with the sounding of rams’ horns and trumpets, and of cymbals, and the playing of lyres and harps.
1 Chronicles 15:27-28

Wild dancing. Loud shouting. Blissful abandonment and exuberant worship accompanied by purified priests and prescribed offerings, ordained carriers and organized worship. This kind of procession held together the tension of spontaneity and order, of familiarity and respect. And God was pleased to bless it.

Intimacy and reverence are not mutually exclusive. We have a God who is both tender friend and consuming fire. He invites us into a full-on, open relationship, but also maintains a distinction between Himself as God and us as His people. A line does remain between us, but it serves to magnify our marvel over a God who comes close in holy communion.

Persevering Hope

“Hope? I have no hope left for anything good in this life.” I had been clinging to it against all odds, but hope had died with the last baby. I was still going through the motions of everyday life, but I had lost all motivation to press forward. Forward towards what? More pain, more disappointment, more death? My faith in God was still intact, much to my relief, but I had quit on hope. It just hurt too much.

… You stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
Hebrews 10:32-34

God gently called me back to hope through His Word. The book of Hebrews was written to people who, like me, had already weathered some pretty intense storms. They had not backed down, they had not quit on their faith, and they had even joyfully accepted their hardships because of their hope in God’s coming kingdom. But having persevered through the first several rounds of suffering, they were losing steam. Life was so hard, the journey was so long, the cost was so high: how could they keep going?

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. … But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 10:35-11:1)

Those of us who travel this long, hard road need relevant, regular reminders that our hope is not in vain.

But what cause did I have for hope? My experience with hope was that it inevitably resulted in even greater disappointment. I had kept on sharing my faith with resistant people. I had prayed for my friend with cancer to be healed. I had persevered in hope that God could give life to this last baby, despite the discouraging ultrasounds. But none of it had worked. I still held on to a theoretical hope for the life to come, but that seemed so distant that it made little difference in the way I felt now. What good thing did I dare raise my eyes to in the here and now?

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:2-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1

This call to hope was not a harsh demand; it was a gentle reminder. It nudged my perspective back up to the truest reality. Jesus walked this path ahead of me, and He made it to the other side. He, along with that great cloud of witnesses listed in Hebrews 11, kept putting one foot in front of the other, clinging to hope despite the constant barrage of circumstances that tried to steal it away. That journey was not easy for them—they still bear the scars—but they did eventually get what they had hoped for.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, … but let us encourage one another–all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10:24-25

I, like the believers in Hebrews, needed to hear that I was not alone in my struggle. No wonder the author of Hebrews encouraged them to keep getting together so that they could cheer each other on! And we are in that same company. All of us traveling this long, hard road need frequent, tangible reminders that, as much as it might not feel like it in the moment, our hope is not in vain. Our Prize is waiting.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:23

Messy Worship

Years ago a grief counselor told me that until I expressed my anger towards God, I would not fully heal. I remember responding with horrified disagreement at such an irreverent idea. Getting angry before God was the worst scenario I could imagine. He was my Maker, Redeemer, and Sustainer. I existed for His glory, not He for my convenience. What right did I have to question God or to allow myself to even consider being upset with Him? How could venting my fickle emotions at Him possibly honor Him?

God doesn’t want our “sacrifices” of worship and service apart from true intimacy. What pleases Him most is whole-hearted, full-on relationship, even if it comes with complicated emotions and awkward altercations.

When I consider the way David related to God, though, I get a different picture of what kind of relationship God wants to have with us. My favorite psalms to pray used to be the ones in which David was worshipping God in the splendor of His holiness, overflowing with praise for His goodness, faithfulness, and mercy. But the many other psalms in which David questioned and complained and ranted at God unsettled me. I didn’t quite know what to do with them, so I chalked them up to David’s weak humanity and decided I would “do better” in my relationship with God. No matter how much I hurt or struggled in life, I was determined to keep praising God and to never besmear His holiness with my messy emotions. How self-righteous of me to think I could improve on the man after God’s own heart!

I said, “I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin … ” But when I was silent and still, not even saying anything good, my anguish increased. My heart grew hot within me, and as I meditated, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. … I was silent; I would not open my mouth, for you are the one who has done this. Remove your scourge from me; I am overcome by the blow of your hand. … Look away from me, that I may rejoice again before I depart and am no more.”
Psalm 39:1-5, 9-10, 13

David understood something about God that I didn’t. He had struggled through overwhelming trials and devastating disappointments, trying to remain polite and respectful towards God. But the silence was killing their relationship. As long as David kept his doubts and frustration pent up inside, they kept him from relating whole-heartedly with God. When he finally voiced his unspoken questions and disrespectful desires to God, he could be fully reconciled to the Lover of his soul.

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. …
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am …
Psalm 40:1-3, 6-7

The raw ranting and deep disillusionment of Psalm 39 is inevitably followed by the sweet resolution and deepened intimacy of Psalm 40. After reflecting on God’s gracious response to his desperate cry, David states what he discovered that God really wants from him: pierced ears. These were the symbol of a servant who had willingly given himself, heart and body, to his master and, in so doing, had entered into a permanent, familial relationship with him. God didn’t want David’s “sacrifices” of worship and of service apart from true intimacy. What pleased Him most was a whole-hearted, full-on relationship, even if it came with complicated emotions and awkward altercations.

Like David, I have come a long way, both in my experience of life and in my understanding of God. I have been broken beyond the point of what parroting simple truths could repair, and I have learned to honor God through a more mature, intimate relationship in which we both speak honestly and listen intently to each other. Of course He is still the high, exalted King and I am still a frail, faulty mortal. But this is the sort of intimacy of relationship that the triune God has initiated with His people: the nurturing Father with His adoring children, the compassionate Friend with His needy companions, the radiant Groom with His beloved bride.

Wounding Hands, Healing Hands

It was the first week of a new year, an appropriate time to look back over the events of the past year and anticipate all that would come with the new one. But unless the pattern radically changed, all I had to look forward to was more struggle, more disappointment, more weakness, more pain. Was this what God had in store for the rest of my life?

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
Psalm 42:7

Worn and weary, I lay suspended in a hammock looking up through the tree branches towards the heavens. I had not yet found resolution to the relational dilemma of a sovereign God who had ordained great suffering for me. But my soul was shattered, too broken to fight anymore. His were the hands that had wounded me. But His were the only hands that could comfort me. Part of me wanted to turn away from Him, to run away from the source of my pain. But the thought of life apart from God’s love brought even more despair than the misery of living within it.

My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. … I am reduced to skin and bones.
For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears because of your great wrath, for you have taken me up and thrown me aside. … In the course of my life he broke my strength; he cut short my days.
Psalm 102:4-5, 9-10, 23

The only choice I had was to go to Him with my grief, to cling to Him while telling Him how much He had hurt me. Once again, the Psalms gave me permission to voice my complaint and the words to do it. I told Him frankly of the ways that I had been affected by His actions, and I didn’t sugar-coat it with statements of how gracious He had been to spare me from worse.

Tangible experiences of His love became the balm that made my anguish more bearable.

Lightning did not fall from heaven and strike me dead. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded if it did. I didn’t really want to live anymore, not with the prospect of a life filled with nothing but more suffering and pain, stretching out endlessly before me. I knew it wasn’t an option to end my own life, but it would be such a relief if He would end it for me. I fell asleep each night asking Him to do so. I awoke each morning disappointed that He hadn’t.

Through the first few months of that year, like the psalmists, I rose each morning and cried to God for help. I implored Him for the strength to make it through another day, then began by putting one foot in front of the other. I often felt like I was walking on that invisible bridge over an endless chasm from the old Indiana Jones movie. But as I took each step in blind, desperate faith, His strong hands kept my feet from slipping and my soul from falling into infinite despair. I came to the end of each day shocked and grateful to have actually made it that far.

By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life.
Psalm 42:8

In the midst of the struggle to go on, tangible experiences of His love became the balm that made my anguish more bearable. He did not “beam me up” out of my misery, but He did join me in the middle of it. The compassionate, silent hug of a friend. The gift of those sweet hours of oblivion that came with sleep each night. The poignant beauty of a song. The warmth of the sunlight caressing my face as I stole a few quiet moments in the hammock. All of these were touches of comfort from His hands, reassuring expressions of His true heart towards me.

Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.
Job 5:17-18

Counting our Blessings?

Tiff,
We sang “count your blessings” in morning prayers yesterday. There’s a line in there about “does the cross feel like a heavy burden to bear” (something like that) and prescribes counting your blessings. 
So, my question for your blog: what do we do with songs like this? Is there value in reminding people to count blessings? I remember people telling me all kinds of things that would “fix” me (more prayer, more bible study, more service to others, etc.). Some of them helped in small ways. None of them “fixed” me.

I hate to admit this, but the rebel in me wants to stand up after a song like that and read aloud Psalm 89, which begins by “recounting” God’s former blessings and promises and then abruptly jumps track and launches into a long list of all the curses that He has brought on His people. Singing about “counting your curses” might not send everyone away with a pleasant smile on their face, though.

The movement in the Psalms, and the goal in our own lives, is towards joyful praise. But the road from despair to worship often has to first pass through lament.

Songs like “Count your Blessings” often seem to downplay the reality and immensity of our troubles, sending the message that if we would just focus on the positive rather than the negative, all our problems would just go away. If only the solution were so simple! Formulaic, moralistic approaches to comfort are more likely to heap additional guilt, isolation, and wounding on a person barely managing to keep their nose above water. They don’t need another sermon; they need a life raft!

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.
Psalm 77:1-2

That being said, I do see a form of “Count your Blessings” in many of the Biblical prayers, Psalm 77 in particular. The psalmist doesn’t jump straight to the blessings, though. First he cries out his distress and troubles to God, refusing to be comforted until they have been properly addressed.

My heart mused and my spirit inquired: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Psalm 77:6-9

As he considers his current misery, he verbalizes to God the horrible doubts that his recent experiences have forced him to consider. These are the disturbing questions that have been simmering under the surface, questions about the character of God and the nature of their relationship. They seem too heretical to put into words, but if he doesn’t ask them his soul will remain in turmoil and their relationship will remain unresolved.

Even as the psalmist hears the questions stated out loud, he recognizes how preposterous they are. God “forgetting” to be merciful? Unfailing love that fails?

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy.
Psalm 77:10-13

The psalmist desperately wants to get beyond despair and back into praise, but he refuses to shortcut the process and shortchange the relationship. So instead he appeals to the history of God’s dealings with His people. He chooses to remember the things God has done in the past, to count the ways He has already proven His love and shown His goodness.

Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.
Psalm 77:19

Memories of God’s incredible rescues and tender mercies come flooding in. In the past when troubles overwhelmed God’s people, He always showed up and delivered them, even when they couldn’t see Him doing it. This time will be no different. Finally, his soul can be a rest again. God has been good to him, and God will once more be good to him.

The movement in the Psalms, and the goal in our own lives, is towards joyful praise. But the road from despair to worship often has to first pass through lament. Interestingly, lament rarely manages to sustain itself for too long. Once it has served its purpose, lament fades away and leaves room for gratitude. And at that point, counting our blessings is a helpful life buoy in lifting our spirits back to joy.